Serial Commas: Debated, Defended(,) and Fought Over

It’s right up there with single spacing after periods and capitalizing titles. Yep, it’s one of those things that professional communicators love to debate. I’m talking about the serial comma (aka the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma). Yes, that pesky comma that shows up before the conjunction before the last item in a series of three or more items. It has been debated, decried(,) and fought over for decades.

If you, like me, were brought up through the AP style world and not the world of academia, you probably learned to despise the serial comma under any and all circumstances. After all, saving space is everything so it’s “Red, white and blue” not “Red, white, and blue.” You’re the serial killer of serial commas. But remember: Style rules are not necessarily grammar rules, and the AP Style Book was written for newspapers, not internal communications.

So, when should you use the serial comma? Clearly, there are times when that extra comma is needed to avoid confusion. Take a look at the following two sentences and ask yourself how many people went with me to Honolulu and where should I place commas? Is it one travel companion, two, or three? The answer depends on where you decide to place those commas.

  • I went to Honolulu with John a big man and a great talker.

  • I went to Honolulu with Maria a maid and a cook.

In the first sentence, it’s pretty clear we’re talking about one person, John, who is a big man, and a great talker. Thus, we’d punctuate it like this: “I went to Honolulu with John, a big man and a great talker.”

But in the second sentence, it’s not quite as clear and only the writer knows for sure if we traveled with two or three companions. It could read as: “I went to Honolulu with Maria, a maid and a cook.” or “I went to Honolulu with Maria, a maid, and a cook.”

Create Your Own Customized Internal Communications Style Book

As in all good communication, our effort as internal communications professionals should be to make things as clear and as accurate for our audiences as possible. So, if you refuse to use a serial comma under any and all circumstances, perhaps you, Maria, a maid, and a cook should get together and sort it all out. Let us know what you come up with in the quick poll embedded below or in the comments section.

As for me, I’m going to go with clarity and accuracy, and I’ll do so consistently by incorporating a serial comma rule in my own customized internal communications style book that is based on AP Style but has some well-defined differences. Now, about capitalizing those job titles …

Related Post:  The AP Stylebook Isn’t ‘the Bible’ for Internal Communications


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